A fresh start

Scott School renovated into low-income apartments

Some people who might otherwise be homeless can now live in modern rooms and apartments in a recently completed real estate development, the Scott School Apartment Homes on North 19th Street.

The heart of the project is the Scott Street School, the oldest surviving public school building for black children in Baton Rouge.

Built in 1922 during the era of segregation, the Scott Street School was designed by Shreveport architect Edward F. Neild, who in the 1920s and ‘30s designed some of Louisiana’s most significant buildings. In 1994, the school was placed on the National Register of Historic Places

Scott Street School served the community as an elementary school until 1976. It was later used as a Head Start center until 2005, when it was abandoned and boarded up.

In June 2006, Randy Nichols, executive director of Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless, read in The Advocate that the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board was interested in selling the Scott Street School.

Nichols was already talking with Kathy Laborde, president of the Gulf Coast Housing Partnership, about a one-step service center for homeless people.

“When I saw the picture (of the Scott Street School) in the paper, I said it was too good of an opportunity to pass up,” Nichols said. “So instead of doing one project, we set out to do two.”

Gulf Coast Housing Partnership is a nonprofit real estate development company formed in January 2006 as a response to the hurricanes that hit Louisiana and Mississippi.

“A lot of the money we use is federal money,” Laborde said. “Since both states do not have a lot of state or local dollars earmarked toward housing, we rely on federal dollars distributed competitively.”

Gulf Coast Housing submitted an application with the School Board and purchased the school campus for $700,000. The plan was to convert the school to low-income housing units.

Initially the partnership applied for low-income tax credits and found an investor.

“And then the credit market crashed, and the investor pulled out,” Laborde said.

Other developers were in the same situation. “No one anticipated that the credit market would crash,” she said. “Many projects were delayed. We had to restrategize.”

Gulf Coast Housing then qualified for a 1602 Exchange through the U.S. Treasury.

“Basically credits we were awarded by the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency we were able to turn in and exchange for capital,” Laborde said. “So in essence, the federal government stepped in as the investor by providing the capital the investor market could not.”

Gulf Coast Housing acquired $8.5 million from eight different sources for the construction project, which was started in April 2010.

Buddy Ragland of Coleman Partners Architects was managing principal architect for the restoration of the school and an addition containing 40 single-occupancy rooms. Milton J. Womack Inc. was general contractor.

“We tried to put the best team we could together,” Laborde said. “We need people who do their job well so we end up with a project that is going to withstand the test of time.”

The old school was restored to National Park Service standards for preserving, rehabilitating, restoring and reconstructing historic buildings.

“We thought it was important as an anchor building in the neighborhood to bring it back,” Laborde said.

“The grounds were really lovely. We thought it was really an opportunity to serve some folks who would otherwise be homeless and put them in a campus setting where they can graduate to a larger unit without leaving home.”

The facility is designed for people who make low wages or are homeless or living with family members or may be on a social program, Laborde said. The housing is permanent.

An applicant must qualify for acceptance as a tenant and must provide detailed information on income from all sources. All applicants must meet certain qualifying standards established by the government.

Tenants sign a one-year lease and must qualify for each lease renewal. The property is managed by Latter & Blum Property Management.

“People pay to live here,” Laborde said. “They pay rent according to what they can afford or if they are on a program, that program pays their rent.”

The single-occupancy rooms in the new addition contain private baths. Occupants share kitchens.

“By design, they were meant to be a place for people to come out of really deplorable conditions,” Laborde said. “We will accept people who are earning 20, 30, 40 or 50 percent of area median income.”

Area median income divides area households into two groups, those earning more than the median income and those earning less. The area median income for a family of four in the Baton Rouge area is $60,600.

Rentals at the Scott School Apartments vary from a low of $252 per month for a single room to $608 per month for a one-bedroom apartment.

The restored school building contains 20 apartments, both efficiencies and one bedrooms. These have kitchens and bathrooms.

Tenants who want a larger apartment can apply to move to the old school building. “We cannot accept anyone who earns more than 60 percent of area median income,” Laborde said.

Bryan H├ębert moved into an efficiency apartment one month ago. “It’s quiet and comfortable,” he said.

Nichols sees the project as a good thing for the community as a whole.

“Most of the studies show that there is a shortage of quality affordable housing in Baton Rouge. There are also vast tracts of blighted land,” he said. “I see this as part of a larger effort in Baton Rouge to deal with blighted property and create affordable housing for low-income people.”

The Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless works with such other agencies as Volunteers of America and the Women’s Community Rehabilitation Center, groups that provide services to the homeless.

“They can place their people here who are looking for housing. Sometimes they provide some rental subsidies,” he said.

Other agencies are contracted to provide services for the facility.

O’Brien House’s Plant It Forward is providing the landscape maintenance. UpLIFTD (Louisiana Industries for the Disabled) has the janitorial contract.

“It’s a whole national movement toward social enterprise,” said Nichols, who is looking for a grant to create a tenant association for the facility.

“This is what we call mission-driven development, developing properties to serve our own clients to increase the amount of serviceable housing,” he said. “We couldn’t do it by ourselves, but we can be partners in very attractive properties to serve the people we serve.”